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It’s time we recognize pets as a public health strategy

Pandemic experiences, research make clear the benefits of pet ownership

Capitol Police officers pet a therapy dog near the House carriage entrance in July. We’ve gone from seeing pets as just “fun” to recognizing their help in addressing mental health, medical conditions and social connection, Feldman writes.
Capitol Police officers pet a therapy dog near the House carriage entrance in July. We’ve gone from seeing pets as just “fun” to recognizing their help in addressing mental health, medical conditions and social connection, Feldman writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Many Americans have come to appreciate the power of the human-animal bond through meaningful personal experiences with their pets over the past year and half. 

The comfort and companionship pets have provided during the pandemic is supported by solid scientific research demonstrating that pets improve our health and well-being. Now is the time to rely on that research and envision policies and programs that recognize pet ownership as a public health strategy.

We’ve progressed from a sense that pets are just “fun” to recognizing that pets support positive changes in mental health, address significant medical conditions and promote social connection. Studies even show that pets have the power to lower the cost of health care and strengthen the social fabric of towns and cities throughout the United States.

A record 90 percent of pet owners said their pet helped them cope emotionally with the pandemic. Scientific studies back them up, showing that pets can alleviate anxiety, reduce depression and buffer against stress. More health professionals are recommending pets and incorporating them into the long-term management of mental health conditions.

Pets improve physical health as well. Research demonstrates that pet owners have lower blood pressure and are more likely to achieve recommended levels of daily exercise. Dog ownership has also been shown to correlate with reduced obesity and longer life. For these reasons, the American Heart Association views pet ownership as an important heart health strategy.

Research on child health has indicated that growing up with a pet can positively influence their development. Children with pets are more likely to be physically active and social, and learn important life skills through taking care of pets.

Pets also bring us together, reducing loneliness and social isolation. We now know that communities with more pets are more closely-knit and connected. Pets help us interact with each other and serve as the common ground that can often be missing in our society.

Unlike other public health strategies, like nutritional guidelines, for example, there is currently no federal effort to promote pet ownership or to support pet owners, who now make up 70 percent of U.S. households. The evidence of positive health benefits that pets provide Americans is strong enough that we should elevate engagement with pets as a wellness strategy to the same level as nutrition, exercise, smoking cessation and other public health priorities.

We’re making important progress. Through bipartisan passage and funding of the Pet and Women Safety, or PAWS, Act, Department of Justice grants are now helping domestic violence shelters become pet-friendly. And with recent passage of the PAWS for Veterans Therapy Act, more veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder will have access to the healing power of service dogs.

Beyond these targeted efforts, Congress and federal agencies can help support pet ownership on a broader basis. For example, Congress can pass the Healthy Dog Importation Act, which would ensure a reliable source of healthy pets and protect public health. Pet-friendly housing policies can also be updated to expand access and help pet owners find and keep stable housing.

A broad coalition of the pet care community, human health providers and pet owners is working together to support federal efforts to promote pet ownership and care. The benefits to public health are too great not to take action. Now more than ever, pets are having their moment. Let’s make the most of it for our health and for theirs.

Steven Feldman is the president of the Human Animal Bond Research Institute, a nonprofit organization that funds research on the health benefits of pets. The institute also hosts Pet Week on Capitol Hill, which begins Monday.

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